My Dances with the Stars

Willamette Meteorite with boys posing in it

In 1953 I was 10 years old. My family lived in Brooklyn. We couldn’t see the stars there, but in the summer, when we went to the Catskills, they were glorious. In the winter my favorite weekend expedition was a trip to the Hayden Planetarium for the star show. Before and after the show, I wandered the exhibits. A set of scales told me how much I would weigh on other planets: my terrestrial 60 lbs converted to 10 lbs on the moon, 22 lbs on Mars, 140 lbs on Jupiter, and 1674 lbs on the Sun. I was impressed by the Willamette meteorite, a 10-foot-long hunk of iron weighing 15.5 tons here on Earth. I wanted to climb on it, but that was forbidden. I put my hands in its cavities.

My ambition then was to be the first earthling to visit Mars. I visualized myself on some future day descending the ladder of my spaceship and greeting the little green men. They would have antennae, just like in the comic books. In this vision I was still a 10-year-old girl, with two brown braids hanging down the back of my space suit.

I skipped a year, and in 1957 I was in 9th grade. The USSR had launched Sputnik, so scientists, who had always been derided as eggheads in American popular culture, were finally getting some respect. High school students around the country launched homemade rockets. Four of us from the gifted class met at Alan’s house. His older brother was studying chemistry in college and kept some equipment in the basement, including a rabbit in a cage and some pet mice. Our plan was to build a rocket and send a mouse up into the stratosphere. I looked up the recipe for gunpowder in my father’s chemical dictionary. We made some, rolled it up in a paper napkin, put it under a cone made of aluminum foil, and lit one end with a match. The results were disappointing. The gunpowder roll burned but didn’t blow the cone up off the ground. We didn’t know that gunpowder requires pressure to explode, and thought we must have gotten the formula wrong. We were too ignorant to know that we had dodged a very real bullet, sparing our fingers, our eyes, and a mouse’s life.

In 1958 I was 15 and a student at the Bronx High School of Science. The Air Force sent a recruiter to our school to sign kids up for the ROTC. He sat at a desk in the basement hallway, and a couple of girls wearing ill-fitting sky blue skirts marched back and forth with what looked like broomsticks over their shoulders. I was under the impression that you had to be a pilot to be chosen for the space program, so I was willing to put up with the drills and the ugly uniforms to get the training.

“You’ll teach me to fly a plane?” I asked the recruiter.

“We don’t teach girls to fly,” he replied.

“What do you teach them?”

“To be secretaries or weather girls.”

I didn’t need the military to teach me to be a secretary. I walked away, angry and disappointed.

Years later, I realized that I had dodged another bullet. If I had been a boy, and allowed to train as an Air Force pilot, I would have been sent to drop bombs on Vietnamese peasants. As a girl recruit, on the other hand, I would have had a different experience. Military women have a greater likelihood of being raped by fellow soldiers than of dying in combat.

In 1963 I left home and became a political activist. For the next decade or so astronomy and space were not uppermost in my mind.

In 1975 I was 31 and living in Oakland. I had only recently learned to drive a car, because I had not needed one in New York City. That year I inherited around $8,000 and decided to spend most of it on flying lessons, with the fantasy of starting a feminist aviation company, Amelia Airlines. Flying was another disappointment, not at all like the dreams a person has of soaring through the air. I found myself, instead, sitting inside a noisy machine. I asked the instructor how much it would cost to become a commercial pilot. He said it was over $30,000. (It would be around $100,000 now). I gave up that project.

The summer of 1983 I had never been out of the country, but I mustered up the courage to fly to the other side of the planet to treat a broken heart. Indonesia was the strangest place I had ever seen. I was always fascinated, often homesick, and acutely lonely. Nobody knew me there. No one would care if I lived or died.

One night I climbed Mt. Bromo on the island of Java. Since it’s on the equator, you don’t want to ascend the barren slopes during the day. You get going right after midnight so you can gaze into the fiery crater while it’s still dark, and then watch the sunrise from the peak. A tour group on horseback had started before me, but I disliked traveling in groups with a yammering guide telling us what to look at. I went on foot and alone. Shortly before dawn, I saw that Orion had risen in the east. O familiar stars! They dispelled my loneliness and homesickness.

In 1997, on my third date with Sylvia, she took me for a walk along Ocean Beach in San Francisco. On our way back we watched the stars come out. I pointed them out to her and named the ones I knew. The next year we got married. I no longer wanted to leave this planet.

Sylvia and I moved to Portland, in the Willamette Valley, in 2005. In 2013 we visited New York City. I took her to the Hayden Planetarium and showed her the Willamette meteorite. Now we knew that it had been stolen from our valley. The Native Americans had accepted a treaty that allowed them access to the rock for ceremonies, but that meant they had to schlep 3,000 miles for the purpose. I’d say they got the short end of the stick.

In 2020, I’m 76. It’s midnight here in Portland, and Sylvia and I are taking the garbage out. The moon is nearly full, and with that and the ambient city light we can see only the brightest stars. I show her Arcturus, Vega, Deneb, and Altair, and the planets Jupiter and Saturn. Mars has just risen but isn’t yet visible over the buildings to the east. One evening this summer we will drive up to the mountains, pick out the constellations, and marvel at the arm of the galaxy spread across the heavens. I am content.

4 Responses to My Dances with the Stars

  1. Connie O Byrne July 12, 2020 at 9:16 pm #

    I do enjoy your writings and look forward to every one of them. And that’s why I’m glad you didn’t become an astronaut. Given our relatively close age, neither of us had a chance at that (I’ll be 74 in two months). But Encounters of the Third Kind remains my favorite sci-fi movie and much to the horror of my partner at the time, I would have gleefully climbed aboard!!
    Keep on writing…your work is greatly appreciated.

  2. Martha Shelley July 13, 2020 at 11:38 am #

    Thank you! Writing is a lonely business, and sometimes I feel like I’m putting messages into a space capsule & sending them to who knows where. Your comment made my day!

    My favorite was Alien–I had a thing for Sigourney Weaver in that movie.

  3. Margaret Moody July 15, 2020 at 8:22 am #

    Very interesting, Martha. You never cease to amaze me. Sorry you didn’t enjoy flying, though. That has always been one of my passions. My husband is a pilot, and we have had two airplanes, both small, a two-seater and a four-seater, but we flew a lot of miles, as far as Key West once. Lost the radio on the way back. Quite an experience.

    Don’t ever stop writing. You are very gifted. You bring back a lot of memories.

    • Martha Shelley July 15, 2020 at 10:31 am #

      I’m glad you love flying. I might have enjoyed hang gliding, because I hate machine noise, including motorcycles, vacuum cleaners, citrus juicers–you name it. What I love is being in the wilderness, alone. I used to go solo backpacking for a week at a time. Since knee surgery I can’t carry as much as I used to, but I go hiking in wild places when I can.

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